Advertising’s agenda of white heteronormativity
- Published: 14 August 2010
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Adverts don’t just sell us a product, they sell a white, heterosexual identity and lifestyle as the norm. In just one and a half minutes, film director Baz Luhrmann’s Incredible: Australia ‘Come Walkabout’ ad manages to be racist and sexist, writes Jessica Ison.
Identity construction and formation is a lucrative topic. Questions of “What is authentic?” so easily arise. Construction of the self against what is not the self ie ‘the other’ is easily manipulated through the medium of advertising; we are told who we are, or who we are not, in an attempt at selling a product.
Yet it is selling more than this. It is selling a lifestyle, that is, an image of the self. Take, for example, the advertisement for Ray Ban’s where the focus of the advertisement is not the sunglasses, but the woman.
Typically “beautiful” men passing her drinks while she reclines in a virginal gown surround her. The ad’s agenda is obviously to make you want to buy the product but it is also selling you the lifestyle – it is selling you a white heteronormative identity.
This identity constructing/enforcing form of advertising, within the binary of self/other can be clearly seen in film director Baz Luhrmann’s ad Incredible: Australia ‘Come Walkabout’ and highlights how Luhrmann constructs and enforces identity against an other. This brings in to question the invisibility of the heterosexual subject and the invisibility of whiteness.
Firstly, a white, heterosexual, Western male created this ad, which is similar to most tourist advertising. In Privileging the Male Gaze: Gendered Tourism Landscapes Annette Pritchard and Nigel Morgan highlight the male dominance of the advertising industry, and the role that this has in tourist advertising, stating:
“What is portrayed by the media assumes a particular kind of tourist: white, Western, male, and heterosexual privileging the gaze of the ‘master subject’ over others. This is the model of the typical tourist largely because those behind the camera – the image creator’s themselves – are predominately male, white, and Western, and where they are not from this group, they are influenced by its dominance.”
Tourist advertisements sell an image of the country, one that is predominately based on a white male protagonist and racial other/attraction. This is similar to much advertising that uses dominant images of men having power and ownership, particularly of women, who are seen as passive and available.
Luhrmann made Incredible Australia ‘Come Walkabout’ to advertise Australia after the release of his film Australia. He created two versions of this ad set in New York and Shanghai, with the child actor, Brandon Walters, starring in both the film and the ads.
In the New York version, a white man and a white woman in New York are in a romantic relationship. The man implies that he can no longer be in the relationship with her any more as she is overworked, and they never see each other. We can see that she is depressed. A young Indigenous Australian child is walking through the streets of New York leaving brown footprints – the only colour we see that isn’t grey (even the white protagonist’s skin seems grey).
The child walks in to the woman’s apartment where she is sleeping alone and whispers in her ear ‘Sometimes we have to get lost to find ourself. Sometimes we gotta go walkabout.’ The woman faces the child as the child pours brown dirt in to her hands.
Suddenly, the music crescendos as the initial couple swim in a large lake and embrace. The camera pans over sweeping Australian landscapes and rushing water. White writing appears on the screen, which says, “She arrived as Ms. K Matieson, Executive VP of Sales,” which fades as the camera pans back to the woman who is looking dreamily in to the distance. The writing appears again, this time stating, “She departed as Kate.”
The landscape fades and the ad ends with a hand brushing over some foliage and a blurry person with “Australia” flashing across the screen, followed by “Come Walkabout.”
The invisibility of heterosexuality
Firstly, let us look at the construction of the heterosexual subject within this ad. Heterosexuality, similarly to whiteness, is invisible. Heterosexuality is seen as the natural, the authentic, and anything else is a deviation from this norm.
The everyday structures of (Western) society are given to the continuation of the heterosexual couple, from the layout of the home, to the ads on billboards. Heterosexuality is constructed through the continual repetition of heterosexuality as the norm, thus creating and enforcing the heterosexual subject.
Heterosexuality It is used in order to perpetuate gender roles and patriarchy. This normative construction and repetition of heterosexuality as identity is evident within this ad in various ways.
Firstly, the ad pits the woman as unhappy within her role as worker; she is not happy within herself because heteronormativity idealises the woman at home and the husband at work.
This is further enforced when the man says ‘You are not the person I fell in love with.’ We understand that this is because she is always working and therefore is not fulfilling her duty to him. He cannot find happiness in her job, so neither can she.
Further, we can literally see that she is not happy because she cries in both of the sequences before she leaves the city. Firstly when the man says, ‘Look, I just think we need a break [from our relationship]’ and once again when he says ‘You’re not the person I fell in love with’.
We catch a short glimpse of her being tenacious when she yells in to the phone ‘It’ll have to be done again… well it doesn’t matter how late, I’ll be up’, but this is synonymous with her despair, which is exacerbated by the dismal rain and the stark grey of her apartment.
She has stepped outside of her role as a woman within constructed heterosexuality and is paying the price; single, lonely and overworked.
Within this discourse of acceptable femininity and constructed heterosexuality, a heterosexual relationship should be what every woman strives for. In order to sustain this healthy heterosexual relationship the woman must succumb to her feminine desire; to be a nurturer and carer. This is why the child speaks to her, and not the male.
She cannot deny the child because of her innate feminine instincts. Here the ad is enforcing and constructing heterosexual identity both within the ad and toward the viewer. The viewer understands the desirable attributes of the feminine woman.
This ad is steeped in this naturalisation of love, which is played out through the heterosexual subjects. This love not only enforces the heteronormative discourses of society but creates them. This experience of love that is being used in this ad is not subtle. It is utilising the viewer’s knowledge of fairytale heterosexual love to bring back memories for the viewer.
In this instance, if it is not the film Australia, the viewer will most likely still know the generic Disney plot where boy-meets-girl, problem arises, boy wins girl in the end. Though this ad is only one and a half minutes long, it is dependent on the viewer relating to this fairytale, or rather, believing in this fairytale.
The most overt example of heterosexual identity/normativity enforcing romantic loves is when the camera moves underwater as we watch the lovers entwine. The music builds to a crescendo and the bubbles swirl around them.
The two come up from the water in a way that implies a sexual climax. They both hold each other in the post-coital embrace associated with loving heterosexual partnership and stare dreamily in to the distance. After having a heterosexual sexual embrace, the woman can become who she should be: Kate.
If we apply this constructed heterosexuality to the notions of constructed identity, we can begin to understand Luhrmann’s ad in terms of the broader constructing/enforcing of the self/other discourse.
Kate’s identity was constructed as VP of Sales, but this is not who she is. When the other (is it her other, her inner child?) confronts her she is forced to realise her true self, that is, Kate. This constructs and enforces her as a heterosexual white woman against a noble savage other.
The institutionalisation of whiteness
Now that we understand the heteronormative constructing/enforcing of self/other discourse, we can look at this in terms of whiteness. If we firstly focus on the broader institutionalisation of whiteness, we can begin to understand how it is so easily ignored within the ad.
Here I will warily use critical race theory in an attempt at exposing whiteness, but as a white writer, I do this cautiously so as not to take the voice of those whom I am purporting to use in exposing my own position.
Further, I have deliberately chosen to not use an Indigenous voice so as not to silence the potential for an Indigenous analysis.
In Raka Shome’s review of whiteness studies, Shome critiques the lack of insight in to the moments when whiteness is challenged within its normative position and thus reacts by creating itself as the other. Yet, aside from this critique, Shome calls for the continuation of unravelling whiteness because it is so ingrained, stating:
“…whiteness, as an institutionalized and systematic problem, is maintained and produced not by overt rhetoric’s of whiteness, but rather, by its ‘everydayness,’ by the everyday, unquestioned racialized social relations that have acquired a seeming normativity and through that normativity function to make invisible the ways in which whites participate in, and derive protection and benefits from, a system whose rules and organizational relations works to their advantage.”
bell hooks, writing from an American perspective, is crucial as Luhrmann’s ad was pitched to an American audience. It is important to understand the American racial construction of self/other.
hooks critically analyses race and its identity construction, confirming Shome’s concept of normative whiteness, stating:
“There is a direct and abiding connection between the maintenance of white supremacist patriarchy in this society [America] and the institutionalization via mass media of specific images, representations of race, of blackness that support and maintain the oppression, exploitation, and overall domination of all black people… From slavery on, white supremacists have recognized that control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination.”
In both of these accounts whiteness is constructed and enforced. Shome analyses the normative way whiteness is enforced institutionally while hooks looks to the media’s role in constructing whiteness against the other and thus enforcing it.
Though Shome and hooks are analysing different aspects of the construction of whiteness they both nevertheless see it as an invisible construction and subsequent enforcement.
In this context of whiteness as invisible, created and enforced against the other, we can place Lurhmann’s ad into the canon of literature that enforces racial self/other identities.
Lurhmann is again relying on the viewers understanding of the self in relation to the other that has been produced so many texts. The prior knowledge being used within this ad is steeped in slavery, racism and xenophobia, but also the noble savage, the innocent black baby in need of white protection and so on.
The white viewer is not watching this without already having constructions of the racial other. On the contrary, the white viewer is moved by this ad because of the prior knowledge of the racial other.
The primitive is pitted against whiteness. This is exacerbated when the man says ‘I’m glad you’re back’. He is referring to the women finding herself again in the primitive other. She is constructing her identity against this other and he is here enforcing it.
On a broader scale the ad is enforcing this belief of finding oneself in the primitive other. Although the ad makes us aware of the restrictions on the white heterosexual (woman) we are conversely coerced in to associating heterosexuality with notions of freedom played out through the other.
The land of sweeping planes that is anyone’s to “walkabout” in, has neglected much in this ad. Aside from the absent cities and crocodiles from the luscious pool in which they are swimming, the ad misses the presence of people in this country.
Additionally, once the couple go on “Walkabout” the child is absent; because once Kate has taken what she needs from the child the couple freely roam where not even the Indigenous person can.
This is reminiscent of the invasion of Australia; in “Terra Nullius” the white person stole what they wanted and used the land in the way that suited them.
Further, the ad also idealises the white heterosexual subject, in that the white heterosexual couple are free, without constraints, to traverse the globe. They can rekindle their love freely in the middle of the desert.
Here, the ad is selling white heterosexuality as freedom to the viewer while enforcing the normative ideals of this constructed white heterosexuality-as-freedom. The broader discourse playing out here is that the white heterosexual couple are free to do as they choose, in any part of the world.
The importance of exposing whiteness
Shome states that exposing whiteness is highly important.
“The hope… is that by making visible to whites (and non-whites) the everyday functioning of the normative and privileged locus of whiteness, whites can perhaps begin to see, and stop denying, the everydayness of whiteness and their participation and positioning in it.”
This too can be applied to the construction/enforcement of heterosexual identity.
If both heterosexuality and whiteness are exposed as constructed identities that are in turn enforced, the denial of white heterosexual privilege could begin to be deconstructed.
Yet, how can this stop when it is invisible? This is where the crux of the ad falls: in the construction and enforcement of the self against the other, white heterosexual (male) viewers are not conscious of their position. They actually see themselves as the normative against which everything else is other.
The invisibility of their identity formation is rarely brought in to question so they do not have to see it as their identity. Rather it is their self, who they are: the normative.
Only by continuing to make these analyses and by continually challenging the normativity of whiteness and heterosexuality will change occur.
Jessica Ison is a queer vegan activist who has recently completed her Masters in Cultural Studies. She is a drag queen, feminist and aspiring academic who has recently returned home from her travels in Colombia and San Francisco.
Image: Embrace Australia